IN THE BEGINNING . . . : THEY WERE THE L.A. CHARGERS : Team Had Many Outstanding Players and High-Scoring Games, but the Seats in the Coliseum Stayed Empty
This is the silver anniversary year of the Chargers in San Diego, but they’re older than 25 by a year.
One of eight charter members of the American Football League, the team was founded here in 1960 and played its first season as the Los Angeles Chargers.
Few fans, however, actually saw them play in Los Angeles. Some high school teams outdrew the Chargers in 1960.
Hall of Famer Sid Gillman, their first coach, recalls the day he stood on the Coliseum sideline that year, shortly before the kickoff, and personally counted the house.
Then, watching the teams warm up, he wondered, idly, if there would be more fans than players.
Nudging hotel man Barron Hilton, the Charger owner who was standing morosely nearby, Gillman said: “I’ve got a great promotional idea, Barron. Let’s introduce the people in the stands today, instead of the teams.”
Hilton brightened for a moment, then demurred.
“They’d be too embarrassed,” he said. “They’re all bellhops and front-desk clerks I let in free.”
Strangely, the better the Chargers played in 1960, the worse the attendance became, even though the Chargers were a team of names.
Stars included Hall of Fame lineman Ron Mix, All-American fullback Charlie Flowers, All-AFL halfback Paul Lowe, and All-AFL quarterback Jack Kemp, the league’s first passing champion, who eventually left football for politics and became a New York congressman.
“We played wide-open, 1980s football on that team,” said Kemp, captain of the 1960 and ’61 Chargers. “But the world wasn’t ready for it. Capacity was over 103,000 for the Coliseum in 1960, and in only seven home games we set football’s all-time record for playing before vacant seats.”
In those days, the old Los Angeles Examiner was in a morning-paper circulation fight with The Times, which, then as now, sponsored the Rams’ first National Football League exhibition every summer.
So the Examiner embraced the rival AFL and, with a flood of publicity, induced 27,778 to turn out for the Chargers’ first exhibition game in 1960.
Lowe took the opening kickoff and ran it back 105 yards for a touchdown.
“Here we go, men,” the Examiner’s circulation director shouted in the press box, pounding a reporter on the back.
What he didn’t know--what nobody at that time knew--was that was the high-water mark for the AFL in Los Angeles.
When the Chargers opened the regular season here in September, attendance dropped to 17,724.
And in December it dropped to 9,928 as Kemp led Los Angeles to a 41-33 win over the Denver Broncos for the first championship of the AFL West.
That gave the Chargers the right to play the AFL’s first championship game in the Coliseum, an honor they didn’t really want.
“It would have been the first championship game ever played for the personal amusement of bellhops and players’ wives,” Gillman said. “And by then, even the bellhops were getting tired of us. Same old thing every week--touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.”
What’s more, there was national television to consider. The AFL in 1960-64 was on ABC.
Said Gillman: “We thought ABC might not pick up their (1961) option if they panned around the Coliseum in the first quarter and could only find 97 spectators.”
Thus, at the suggestion of AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, a World War II fighter plane ace, Gillman and Hilton made the supreme sacrifice, yielding the home-field advantage.
“And that is how the AFL’s first championship game came to be played on a high school field in Houston--instead of the L.A. Coliseum, the home of two Olympics,” Gillman said.
He has never regretted it although the Houston Oilers’ two big men, quarterback George Blanda and halfback Billy Cannon, rose to the occasion in a 24-16 upset, depriving Los Angeles of the AFL’s first title. Cannon, now serving time in a federal prison on a counterfeiting rap, was the game’s MVP.
“We drew a crowd of 32,183,” Gillman said proudly. “This was the making of the AFL.”
Nevertheless, he sometimes thinks he might have settled for a Coliseum crowd of 97 that day if he had consulted one of his assistant coaches, Al Davis, then in his first year in pro football.
“Al wouldn’t give up the home-field advantage if you offered him California,” Gillman said. “And threw in Nevada.”
Gillman and Davis, as it turned out, were but two of the high-powered football people Hilton hired.
Others included a young personnel expert, Don Klosterman; a personable general manager, Frank Leahy; and three other assistants who went on to make names for themselves in pro football, Joe Madro, Jack Faulkner and Chuck Noll.
Hilton might have known something:
--Madro, a Ram assistant before jumping to the new league, today is in his fourth decade in the NFL and in his ninth year as a Raider scout.
--Faulkner is the Rams’ administrator of football operations.
--Klosterman has spent more than a quarter-century as an NFL executive, always with winning clubs.
--Gillman made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
--Leahy coached five national college football champions and once kept an undefeated streak going at Notre Dame for four years, from 1946 through 1949, when his record was 38-0-2.
--Noll, the highly successful coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Davis, the leader of the Raiders, have put their teams in eight of the 19 Super Bowls--and have won seven of them.
Indeed, Noll’s and Davis’ teams have won all but four of the last 11 Super Bowls.
“I had both of those guys at the same time in 1960,” Hilton once said. “I had an all-star team with all-star coaches--and we drew so well they almost broke me.”
Hilton still is remembered as the owner who was perhaps the best football man the AFL had in his six years, 1960-65. He was the top talent hunter, as well as the unluckiest winner.
Although the Chargers won the AFL championship once and their division title five times--in the only six years Hilton ran a football club--his principal occupation, after bringing in the talent, was writing checks.
Hilton was a free-spending owner. He was, for instance, the first in football to construct a building for his team, a three-story structure housing all club facilities. The place still stands on La Brea Avenue, south of Olympic, as the only remaining monument to the Los Angeles Chargers.
It was there that the most colorful employee in Charger history--or, for that matter, in Hilton hotel history--had his offices.
That was Leahy, who in his short term as general manager showed Charger employees how he had done it at Notre Dame.
“The man absolutely fascinated me,” Kemp said. “He was magnetic in one-on-one relationships. I doubt if anybody Leahy recruited ever turned him down.”
One day in the spring of 1960, when Kemp was working in Charger public relations, he ran into Leahy in the hall.
After a minute or two of small talk, as Leahy left to answer the phone, he said warmly, “Please remember me to Joanne.”
His reference was to Kemp’s wife, whom Leahy had met only once. Fifteen minutes later, he ran into her in the Charger lobby, where Joanne had arrived to pick up Jack. In a rush to interview a prospect, Leahy nonetheless stopped for a moment of conversation, then smiled warmly and said, “Please remember me to Jack.”
Said Jack: “She did--and I did.”
Leahy, however, was an executive who saw nobody without an appointment.
“Even his secretary had to have an appointment,” said Gillman, still an ardent admirer of Leahy’s style.
The system broke down one day, though, when Gillman, the coach, stormed in with urgent business for the general manager--a Charger player was defecting to the NFL.
“Frank’s secretary looked at her book and said I didn’t have an appointment,” Gillman said. “She told me I couldn’t see him.”
Throwing caution to the winds, the coach marched to Leahy’s office and made a surprising discovery. The door was locked.
“That really teed me,” Gillman said. “I stood back, casually, like one of those private eyes on television, then lunged forward and smashed the door with my shoulder, like I was blocking Howie Long. It busted open in two places, and there sat Leahy with his feet on the desk.”
They came to a new understanding shortly. Said Gillman: “Frank told his secretary to consider that the head coach always had a standing appointment.”
Leahy resigned during the 1960 season, and was succeeded by Gillman, but made one last Los Angeles appearance in 1967, when he was invited to Super Bowl I by one of the competing coaches, Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Hank asked Leahy to give the motivational speech to our team,” said Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs’ owner.
Those who heard it still talk about it. Almost as dynamic as Knute Rockne, Leahy urged the Chiefs to play their hearts out “in a game you’ll remember the rest of your lives.”
Unhappily, the Chiefs didn’t have the weapons. The Green Bay Packers won, 35-10.
It was Hunt who, as the AFL’s 26-year-old founder, had put the Chargers in Los Angeles. He first lined up the provincial towns, Dallas, Buffalo and others, but wanted “the big media centers, too.”
That meant Los Angeles and, eventually, the New York Titans.
“I guess we made a mistake on Los Angeles,” said Hunt, who a year later endorsed the Chargers’ move to San Diego. “The L.A. sports market is the toughest in the world with all the teams you have. But I just didn’t see how a new league could pass up L.A. The USFL, I notice, is still trying to hang on out there.”
Hunt had met Hilton in 1959, when they were brought together by a mutual friend, Gene Mako, the former tennis champion.
“I asked Gene to find me an (AFL) owner in Los Angeles,” Hunt said. “He called back the next day to recommend Barron Hilton. He said he’d just built him a swimming pool.”
Hunt immediately telephoned Hilton, who told him to come out and talk about it.
“When I flew to L.A., Barron gave me a few minutes at his office,” Hunt said. “We talked less than an hour altogether, and he agreed on the spot to take the L.A. team. I’ve never met any man, before or since, who made a decision that big that quick.”
Shortly after taking over, Hilton announced a name-the-team contest in which the prize was an expenses-paid trip to Mexico City.
According to legend, the winning name, Chargers, was in the first batch of letters that came in. It was from a local football fan, Gerald Courtney.
Hilton reportedly did not open another contest letter.
Said Hunt: “They told me Barron selected the name for publicity reasons. He was just then getting into the charge account business with one of the nation’s first credit cards, Carte Blanche.”
Hilton soon sold Carte Blanche. Still according to legend, his charge-card business was unsuccessful because he’d made one seemingly insignificant error.
“Hilton had miscalculated the bad debts by 1/2 of 1%,” an insider said.
As the name of a football team, however, Chargers lived on. Hilton, proud of the name he had selected, encouraged fans to bring bugles to home games and blow “Charge.”
Despite his ready understanding of football management, Hilton had trouble with the language.
Thus, he knew that college players sometimes got redshirt status--ineligible for games but available for practice--but he didn’t always express himself properly.
One day he called in personnel director Klosterman and said: “This guy’s eligible for the draft, Don. In his sophomore year he was a red jacket.”
Hilton, though, was the 1960 Chargers’ most rabid fan.
On game days, he sat in his private box at the Coliseum, studying the game intently through field glasses. His father, Conrad Hilton, then the head of the hotel empire, often sat next to him and, just as intently, studied the ads in the game program. Uninterested in football, Conrad was calculating club receipts.
One night, Conrad asked: “Son, how much did you get for this full page from Union Oil?”
Barron, annoyed, didn’t even put down his binoculars.
“Judas Priest, Dad, it’s third and one,” he yelled.
Hilton even conceived the Chargers’ blue and gold uniform, with the familiar lightning-bolt insignia, and commissioned commercial artists to design it.
A few days before the first Charger training camp in 1960, Hilton threw a party for the press at his Santa Monica home, where the new uniforms were unveiled and modeled. As models, Hilton chose his two most photogenic players, Ron Mix and Jack Kemp.
Said Hunt: “Barron had an eye for class. As you know, 1960 was John F. Kennedy’s year, and Barron once told me he thought that someday, Kemp would be the Republicans’ Kennedy.”
Even so, Hilton didn’t attract many Los Angeles writers or editors to his Santa Monica press party that time--or to his Coliseum games anytime.
Said Gillman: “In 1960, the L.A. media never found out that we were in town. And in 1961, they didn’t know we’d left.”
Even the club’s public relations director deserted.
“I couldn’t get him to come down here (to San Diego),” Gillman said. “The L.A. media had brain-washed him.”
The most successful thing about the 1960 Chargers was the way they won their games, one after another, with Kemp’s passes in Gillman’s clever pass offense.
But at first, they didn’t look that good, falling behind the Chiefs at halftime of their regular-season opener in 1960, 20-7.
“I felt sorry for Barron,” said Hunt, the owner of the Chiefs. “When I noticed him in the press box at the half, he was almost in tears. I wanted to go over and cheer him up but decided to wait until after the game.”
After the game it wasn’t necessary.
“They beat us, 21-20,” Hunt said.